Muzychko shakes the assumed perception with figs
NEW BRUNSWICK — You don’t have to be an old Italian guy to grow figs, William Muzychko of Bill’s Figs in Flemington told a group of farmers at the Northeast Organic Farming Associaton-New Jersey Winter Conference on Feb. 1.
“I’m Polish,” he said with a laugh as he introduced himself.
Several of the farmers and gardeners at his workshop had stories about grandfathers, mostly Italian, wrapping their fig trees each winter.
Wrapping trees isn’t sufficient in New Jersey’s climate, except in the milder areas of the shore, Muzychko said. He recommends planting the trees in pots and moving them into a garage for the winter. He said his garage gets down to 33 or 34 degrees F and that’s fine for the trees. He said the building must be kept very dark. The trees must be dormant five months out of the year.
He has a rather complicated system for keeping the tree roots moist. He lines the bottom of the pot with PVC pipe lengths and places a layer of galvanized masonry screening topped by burlap over the pipes to put the soil on.
This enables the roots to pull water up into the plant. He covers the pot with black plastic, letting the tree come up through the plastic to ensure the roots are kept at a temperature of up to 120 degrees F. The plastic stays on all year.
Every four years he takes the pot apart, prunes the roots and replaces the tree, adding lime but not soil. Since figs grow best in soil with a pH of 7.8 or 7.9, lime is very important. The soil he uses is Sweet Valley Farms potting mix, but there are plenty of organic soils that work well, he said. The pots he uses are wider at the top than at the bottom so it is easy to remove the tree, he said. He cautioned the roots must be ground before they are composted.
Muzychko takes the cuttings from the trees and puts them in vermiculite, perlite and sand in a 4-inch pot about 5 inches deep with no rooting hormone to start his next batch of trees.
He fills the pot with water before putting the tree in the garage which means the pot weights between 120 and 130 pounds. He also prunes the tree at the downward-pointing nodes before storing it for the winter.
He waters the trees daily until they are in the garage through a PVC pipe leading to the roots.
He plants the trees so a lawn mower can fit between them, he said.
Bill’s Figs doesn’t actually sell figs. He sells fig trees. Trees with pots and the growing system go for $90.
He does hold Fig Fest every summer when the main crop comes in and between 200 and 250 people come to his farm. His early crop comes in at the end of July and the main crop in August or September. The trees produce one fig for every node on a branch. The fest is usually one or two weeks after Labor Day.
“It’s free, but you have to buy something,” he said of visitors to Fig Fest.
Of the 30,000 figs he harvests each year, he sells about half at the festival, he added.
“You only have three to four days to get them to market,” he warned people interested in selling figs.
Muzychko doesn’t recommend any particular variety of fig tree, saying “they’re all good, different taste but still all good.”
Insects in New Jersey’s climate don’t bother figs, he said. “Maybe the insects that eat figs are tropical,” he noted, adding California fig growers have problems with wasps.
Squirrels are another matter.
Charlie Huebner of the NOFA-NJ board noted, “Australian Cattle Dogs don’t eat figs but they do kill squirrels.”
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